Whatever the ultimate fate of 12 ruling party MLAs, now under scrutiny of the Supreme Court for holding offices profit while still members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly, one thing cannot be denied, this fiasco is a direct consequence of the former Governor Najma Heptulla’s deliberate indiscretion in giving a party which needed the support of 10 outside MLAs to reach the majority mark of 31 to form the government, rather than its rival which would have done it with just three more MLAs in the hung Assembly which the Manipur electorate threw up in February 2017 election. If found guilty these MLAs will face disqualification, though this will be more of a formality than dispensation of justice, with the term of the current Assembly due to end in less than four months.
Heptulla, a former politician belonging to the BJP before being awarded the gubernatorial post after retirement, made the above choice to ensure that her former party is installed in the seats of power of the state despite their winning only 21 seats, against rival Congress’s 28. The result is the state BJP was compelled by circumstance to sacrifice a majority of the 12 cabinet berths permissible under the norms set by the 10th Schedule of the Constitution leaving all but four MLAs of its own party empty handed. The cost was indeed heavy and thus the NPP which won four seats were awarded four cabinet berths, the NPF which too won four seats got two cabinet berths, the LJP which won only one still got a cabinet berth and most atrociously, a Congress MLA too was given a berth in a case which should have clearly attracted disqualification under the 10th Schedule at the very start, but Speaker Yumnam Khemchand as well as Heptulla brusquely ignored this norm, that is until the Supreme Court decided to intervene and prohibit this minister from entering the Manipur Assembly premises full two years after his defection and warned the Speaker to respect Constitutional norms and disqualify him. It is quite obvious that the resort to appointing 12 MLAs of the BJP to the status the controversial Parliamentary Secretaries, with cabinet ranks and perks, was meant to appease BJP MLAs left out in the side lines of the power corridors with injured egos.
The legacy of the way Heptulla handled and resolved the hung Assembly situation in 2017 will contaminate Manipur’s legislative history in more ways than the distaste of the immediate unfair play witnessed four and a half years ago, and indeed may have poisoned the body politics of Manipur in a much more durable way. For one thing, it has encouraged the emergence of a mercenary brand of politics whereby small parties which cannot hope to win a majority on their own are now left convinced their best interest lies in not seeking any pre-poll alliances, formal or informal, and instead to remain unattached so that they can weigh the post poll scenario, and in the event of a hung verdict, look for the highest bidder to make friendships of convenience. Heptulla’s decision will also be a pivotal landmark in Manipur politics for the part she played in transforming the evil of political defection to appear banal and normal, so much so that the people today by and large have come to think the phenomenon is a universally accepted strategy in politics. They are also now comfortable with the idea that politics and morality are by nature alien to each other, and efforts to link them are at best superfluous, if not completely redundant.
The direct tangible consequence of these unethical misuse and misinterpretation of Constitutionally guaranteed State power predictably are already unfolding in the run up to the forthcoming February 2022 Assembly election. Many winnable candidates, especially those fresh in politics, are actually opting for the kingmaker parties. In turn this increase in stake for these parties other than the two main contenders for power, BJP and Congress, is increasing the likelihood of a hung verdict of the electorate yet again ensuring the longevity of this evolving vicious circle unholy alliances, political defections, treacheries and back-stabbing.
After witnessing what is happening in Manipur, and indeed in several other states as well, on account of openly partisan Governors, is time now to ponder on the need and relevance of the Constitutional post of the Governor itself. If we were to look back it will become abundantly clear that embedded in this institution is the British colonial administration’s insecurity about the inevitable and progressive political concessions they have had to make to local governance especially as per the recommendations by the Montague-Chelmsford report in the Government of India Act 1919 and then the Simon Commission report in the making of the Government of India Act 1935. It will be recalled among others that these reforms first introduced local governance mechanisms, and then increased the legislative powers as well as autonomies of these provincial assemblies. Here is where the nominated Head of States in the institution of Governors must have been felt necessary to keep a check on the provincial assemblies. This tradition is what Independent India inherited hence the post of the Governor remains as a reminder of the Union’s suspicion of the complete compliance of the States to its outlook and aspirations. Even per the responsibilities given to the Governors by the Constitution, they are not to be just neutral overseers and arbitrators of the upkeep of the Constitution’s provisions in the face of state-specific political and security crises.
Th Union’s suspicion the States may go beyond their Constitutional briefs may be understandable to some extent, though it also undermines the Constitutionally proclaimed federal character of the Indian nation. As Fali Nariman argues in “The State of the Nation”, India’s independence in 1947 was traumatic. It amounted to splitting itself with the consequence of sectarian violence arguably unprecedented in the history of mankind. Not only this, the India was left with the prospect of bringing 560 Princely States, many of which were either reluctant or unwilling to join the Indian Union, under one banner. The Constitution of India was written at this juncture and understandably would have consciously or unconsciously reflected some of the insecurities of the time. Article 3 for instance is in many ways a manifestation of this insecurity and Nariman implies it is a warning to the former Princely States, that if they misbehaved, the Union has the power to tear them apart, change their names or even abolish them altogether with or without their consent. It should not be difficult to see that the idea of the Union appointed Governors in each State to keep a check on the elected governments falls into this scheme of things conceived at that juncture of India’s history.
The list of Governors Manipur, and indeed the Northeast has had, should testify to this strongly. As Sanjib Baruah pointed out in an essay titled “Generals as Governors” with a good measure of personal distaste, a majority of them have been former Army generals and Intelligence officers who have served in the region during their active service years, and who the Union felt could be entrusted with the responsibility of upholding the interest of the Union in this troubled region. In recent times even this attitude is changing and rather than former military and police professionals whose service days were spent under the oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Union, increasingly Manipur is being left in the charge of former politicians as Governors whose allegiance has been and still are to their former political parties first, and therefore the promotion of party interest in the State as their primary mission. This approach has received further boost in recent times because the ideology and attitude of the party in power in New Delhi at the moment, the BJP, actively promotes the propaganda that its interests are synonymous with that of the Union of India, and that acting against the interest of the BJP is anti-national. For evidence, a retrospect on the number of people booked under the NSA and UAPA for making critical statements against the BJP should suffice. Manipur has seen at least one other former politician as Governor before Heptulla – Chitamani Panigrahi during a Congress tenure at the Centre, but the man was gracefully able to distance himself from party politics once he occupied the position of Head of the State as Governor.
The harm that political party appointees like Heptulla has done in perpetuating a politics bereft of moral in Manipur is already beginning to take its toll and is predicted to get much worse in the years ahead. But the damage would not be just restricted to this State but would very much extend to the Constitution and Constitutional morality too. Perhaps, these bad experiences are an indication that the time has now come for all believers in a liberal India to come together and advocate the need for an overhaul of the institution of Governor as a whole, if not for a complete abolition of it. The responsibility of neutral arbitration of Constitutional crises in the States can then be shifted to appropriate courts of law. This would also be truer to the spirit of federalism in the country.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author